Monday, March 1, 2021
March 1, 2021

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Vancouver Mall mostly weathers storm in COVID-19 holiday season

Retailers adjust to pandemic, state restrictions by reimagining their approach

By , Columbian business reporter
Published:
4 Photos
A colorful Christmas tree adds a festive touch for shoppers and workers at Vancouver Mall. Despite COVID-19 occupancy restrictions, general manager Tracy Peters said, the mall has done relatively well during the current holiday shopping season.
A colorful Christmas tree adds a festive touch for shoppers and workers at Vancouver Mall. Despite COVID-19 occupancy restrictions, general manager Tracy Peters said, the mall has done relatively well during the current holiday shopping season. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The 2020 holiday shopping season is winding down, capping off a challenging year in which retailers worldwide have been forced to adapt to the unprecedented disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vancouver Mall has navigated its way through the season with a mix of revamped holiday events and new digital tools, and while it’s still too soon to know how it all turned out, general manager Tracy Peters said the mall appears to be weathering the storm.

“I think everybody came into this cautiously optimistic, and my evaluation at the end of the season is that we fared better than anticipated,” she said.

New and updated events

In previous years, the mall worked with Share to put on a Giving Tree or a “Flick with St. Nick” movie night for the holidays. Due to the pandemic, Share and the mall created a new drive-thru event on two nights in mid-December, where visitors could pass through holiday-themed scenes like “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa’s Workshop.”

“We had a 40-by-40 (foot) tent that was placed out in our lot, and we activated it with these little vignettes,” said mall marketing manager Bree Sanchez.

Peters said the event was inspired by the mall’s Halloween drive-thru, which had been developed as a replacement for a previous annual indoor trick-or-treat event that became too difficult to pull off safely during the pandemic.

The Christmas event brought in more than $500 in cash donations and eight bins of clothing, blankets and household items, she said. Both drive-thru events were big hits, Peters said, and the mall will likely repeat the Christmas event next year, although probably in an indoor format.

The mall’s “A Christmas Story”-themed Santa set was designed in advance as part of a set of four that have been rotating through multiple Centennial-owned malls, so it had to be adapted for COVID-19 safety protocols.

Most of the set was able to make the transition, Peters said — the only part that had to be cut was a slide at the end. The mall added several wrapped boxes for visitors to sit on at a distance in front of Santa to maintain social distancing for photos. The set includes several locations and props inspired by the movie, intended to serve as backdrops for selfies.

“A lot of people are coming in their bunny suits that they have, to take their holiday pictures,” Peters said, referring to suits that mimic the pink bunny suit that protagonist Ralphie Parker reluctantly dons in the film.

The set’s final open day is today, where it will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a break from 1 to 2 p.m. Reservations are encouraged due to the limited space, but not required.

Holiday shopping trends

It’s too soon to compare sales numbers for the season, but Peters said foot traffic so far indicates that the mall has done relatively well, considering the circumstances.

The outlook isn’t entirely gloomy in national terms, either; in its December 2020 monthly economic review, the National Retail Federation estimated that holiday sales would grow between 3.6 and 5.2 percent from 2019, matching or exceeding the average of 3.5 percent over the past five years.

The catch is that a big chunk of those gains will likely come from online shopping — the federation’s report noted that 2020 has seen a big shift toward online retail throughout the year, and estimated that online holiday shopping would rise by 20 to 30 percent over the previous year.

The online growth, coupled with COVID-19 occupancy restrictions on physical public spaces, could pose a problem for brick-and-mortar retail’s holiday season prospects. But the mall’s stores also appear to be largely avoiding that pitfall.

About 90 percent of the mall’s tenants are still open, Peters said, and some have even seen influxes of sales, although others have had it tougher — Washington’s latest round of COVID-19 restrictions impacted restaurants by banning indoor dining, so the mall’s restaurants and food court all had to slow down and switch to takeout-only models.

The mall is restricted to 25 percent of its usual capacity, but Peters said customer traffic has never reached the cutoff point that would necessitate entry queues. The pandemic has also caused customer traffic patterns to become more spread out throughout the week instead of clustered on the weekends.

“What I’ve noticed is there’s more shopping during the week,” she said. “Typically Wednesday would not be your busiest day, and lately Wednesday is our busiest day.”

The mall also rolled out a handful of new digital features for the holiday shopping season, including a holiday perks promotion through its “My Perks” app and a new website feature that allows customers to browse store inventories online and assemble virtual shopping carts for curbside pick-up orders — both of which have seen strong customer engagement.

The possibility of a new round of stimulus checks also has the potential to benefit retailers. At this point, any new stimulus checks wouldn’t arrive until after Christmas, but the retail industry calendar typically counts January as part of the previous year, Peters said, so it could still function as an end-of-season boost.

“I know that our retailers really noticed the last stimulus check — when that was issued out, they were really thriving,” she said.

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